Chasing Butterflies Through Time
Story by Luke Maguire Armstrong, photos by James Champion

Following in his great-grandfather's footsteps, an amateur scientist travels up a volcano in Guatemala to find an extremely rare butterfly that had only been spotted 3 times in 140 years.

Guatemala travel

When I first met James I did not notice his welcoming smile or child-like eagerness. All I immediately perceived was his presence at the bar with my date, Luisa, making this duo a trio, meaning, it was not the date I thought it was. I had ironed my shirt for nothing.

James shook my hand and met my gaze with an eyebrow-raising grin that flashed an expansive smile. "We have a proposition for you," he said, handing me a shot of tequila.

James had come to Guatemala to embark on a quest that spanned as much into the past as it did the future. He was hot on the trail of a rare species of butterfly—Drucina championi—an insect that had only been sighted by science three times in the 140 years since George Charles Champion, James' great grandfather, had discovered it.

Listening to him tell me about his journey, it seemed like he had walked out of a door marked "Mid-19th Century British Naturalist" into the present day. He is the keeper of an old tradition of travel, adventure, and scientific discovery—someone perfectly cut out to deliver a line like, "Dr. Livingston I presume?"

One of the first names James learned to speak was Metamandana dido, a Latin name for a species of tropical butterfly he had mastered prior to conquering the toilet.

He grew up in Scotland in a house covered wall-to-wall with wildlife portraits snapped in India by his grandfather, F.W. Champion, who pioneered the art of capturing tigers and other wildlife on film by stretching trip lines over game trails that triggered an exposure. It was as much a contribution to science as a lesson in patience. Each "photo trap" would only fire once, more often catching a fleeing tail than a usable portrait. But a few of FW's snaps paid off, and it's likely you've seen some of his world-famous photos.

James books

I met Luisa the previous week at a friend's going away party. She was James' guide to the hillsides and fincas of Guatemala. He instructed her on how to lead him in the footsteps of his great grandfather in search of his butterfly— which had by now become their butterfly.

After my welcoming shot of tequila, James and Luisa laid their proposition on me: that I join them the next day on a trek up the 14,000-foot volcano Acatenango and help search for the butterfly.

Drucina championi had never been sighted on this particular volcano, but intuition made a promising case that it could be. Little is known of the species and only the male has ever been seen, always on sunny days, 2000 meters or so above sea level, flying in bamboo forests in Guatemala. The climb to Acatenango's summit would hit all three criteria.

"I'm sorry," I shook my head, "But I have to work tomorrow. . . November in the charity world is always hectic."

Our night on the town progressed joyfully. Everywhere we went, James made friends. He navigated through life gracefully and continued to tell me his story.


A Family Drawn to Nature
James' fascination with nature was grounded deeply in his genes and the highlights of his childhood. It was not a phase to grow out of, but a lifelong passion to grow into. It's appropriate, as he owes his very existence to a weevil.

On a sunny June day in 1870, his great grandfather, George Charles Champion, was on a day trip collecting insects not far from London on the Isle of Sheppey in the mouth of the River Thames. The nineteen-year-old became overjoyed when he realized he was looking at a minute weevil that was new to the British beetle list. His delight caused him to neglect balancing and he fell to a deep muddy puddle below, where he was effectively trapped until rescued by, coincidentally, another insect enthusiast, J.J. Walker. This man invited George to his home and introduced him to his sister, who fifteen years later became his wife, and ultimately James' great grandmother.


Though James didn't make a career out of studying wildlife, it remained a hobby. He'll happily tell in his jolly UK accent, "Not being gifted in sciences other than biology and worse at math, I was unable to follow biology as a formal study."

Science was not James' only love, and rather than bind himself to it formally, he studied languages, which opened the doors for him to have an ongoing relationship with birds and butterflies around the world.

His command of five languages has allowed him to accumulate a list of residencies and explorations that include Ecuador, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica. In several of these countries James was a language professor by day and zoologist by night, trekking the outdoors with a keen eye eager to catch the fluttering details that tend to disappear as our eyes adjust to the dimmer light of adulthood.

A Mission From the Past
Most of his great-grandfather's personal journals and scientific papers were preserved by James' mother and bequeathed to him. These included detailed diaries covering his Central American journey and also over 50 letters sent to his mother from his trips.

His great-grandfather's contribution to the still emerging field of entomology was significant. G.C. Champion brought back more than 17,500 specimens, 4,500 of which were new to science. Today, some 140 years later, his collections are still being studied.

James studied every word of his great-grandfather's "minute, spidery handwriting" penned beneath a candle's glow. In 2011, five years after traveling to India to learn more about his grandfather F.W., James went one generation further back and embarked on a five-month journey that would retrace GC's footsteps through Guatemala and Panama.

James is keenly aware how 140 years of progress crafted a very different experience. Where his ancestor traversed the country on the back of a mule across haphazard trails, James enjoyed air-conditioned cars cruising along paved highways at 80 kilometers per hour.


His modern, Gore-tex hiking boots would make footprints on the very ground where his great-grandfather's leather boots had stomped. This alone would be the fulfillment of a dream, but James wanted to go further and catch a glimpse of the rare butterfly discovered by and named after his great-grandfather, Drucina championi.

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